In many ways we are products of our time and culture and even of our language. Because of this, it’s probably way too easy to make mistaken judgments and draw incorrect conclusions about people of another time and place with which we’re unfamiliar. And even when it comes to the language we speak, changes to it over time can be baffling. It’s little wonder for instance, that most people today who attempt to read the plays of William Shakespeare, do so by means of an annotated version in order to decipher the Elizabethan English, let alone to unlock the ways and manners of England of some four-hundred years ago.
Even over a relatively shorter period of time, much can change when it comes to our own native language and culture. Over ten years ago I read H.L. Mencken’s trilogy of informal memoirs, Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days. I found them an informative and highly amusing window into life as it was lived in the late 1800s up to and through the first quarter of the 1900s. And of course, Mencken expressed himself as a man of his time, so I was also struck by how “politically incorrect” these books are by today’s “politically correct” standards; and for that matter, just how demeaning, racist, and sexist they would be considered today given current mores and attitudes. For that matter, I’m quite sure that Mencken would indeed be ‘a stranger in a strange land’ if he were suddenly to find himself alive today. And yet, based on some of his published views, I’m inclined to think that Mencken would probably observe (if he were here now) that while certain coarse expressions and loutish behavior common in his day have been duly marginalized, he’d also discover that words, phrases, and conduct that would have been considered crude and indecent in his day, have a fairly free rein today.
My own grandparents were born at a time when lice combs were common, hangings were a public event, and women didn't vote, though men tipped their hats to them as they opened a door for them. Were all who attended a public hanging back then, coarse and insensitive? Or did some dutifully attend such an event out of some sense of moral obligation?
It would seem that there is wisdom in trying to understand the words and actions of people from the past in the light of the customs and norms that prevailed when they lived, as opposed to hastily judging and censuring them by the mores and standards that we’ve come to accept as normal and right today. After all, how would many of today’s celebrated and famous fair if judged by the mores and standards that may yet develop and change in the future?